Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stone Walker

Stone Walker watched a group of hunters glide toward the forest on snowshoes made of cedar and deer-hide webbing. When they vanished into the predawn mist, Stone Walker tied on his own snowshoes. His mother's clever fingers had made special bindings for one of his feet, twisted since birth. Still, even with his snowshoes' help, Stone Walker moved slowly.

Because of that, his younger brother, Leaping Deer, would someday hunt with others, while Stone Walker would be left behind. Although he was fond of his brother and laughed at his antics, Stone Walker's lips set grimly at this thought.

Finished tying his snowshoes, he knotted a belt over his deerskin shirt and leggings. A sheath held his knife. A larger sheath held smoldering wood chunks enclosed in a clamshell lined with clay. His coiled rawhide rope hung on one shoulder. But as always, he chose to hold his weapon ready.

The mist had cleared, and the sun was poised to leap upward when Stone Walker reached the forest stream he knew best. Along its banks he devised ways of hunting that no other man could teach him. Soon he would surprise his mother by bringing home meat for her stewpot.

When a twig snapped, Stone Walker grasped his rawhide rope loosely in one hand. With his other hand, he prepared to hurl the heavy stone he'd attached to the rope's end. As a rabbit appeared, Stone Walker's whizzing weapon met its mark. Then he used the rope to pull the weapon back and waited for another rabbit.

Behind him a bush shook, showering him with wet snow. He whirled to meet danger and then gasped, "Leaping Deer!"

"I woke and followed you," replied his brother in a weary voice.

Without snowshoes, Leaping Deer stood shivering. Snow reached his knees. His shirt sparkled with frozen crystals left from his many falls. And since he was too young to send back alone, Stone Walker would have to hunt and look after Leaping Deer as well.

"Don't be angry, my brother," Leaping Deer wailed. "It's a sad thing always to wake and find you gone. I'm glad I saw your stone bird fly after the rabbit!"

Stone Walker's anger flowed away as quickly as the stream's icy water. "One rabbit won't ease hunger for two, little brother. But it will warm you. Find dry wood for a fire."

When he was Leaping Deer's age, Stone Walker had often sat quietly observing the forest around him. He had learned much about animal habits. Later, he had fashioned a weapon he could recover easily. Now he found a new purpose. He would teach Leaping Deer to be a great and skillful hunter. This he would do for the sake of his people. Stone Walker's heart felt strong as he prepared to skin the rabbit.

Hanging his rope on a snow-laden limb, he knelt beside the rabbit and reached for his knife. As he did so, a menacing snarl echoed across the clearing.

Facing Stone Walker was a creature he had never before seen. From old hunters' tales, he knew the furred animal quivering with rage was a wolverine. Its broad head revealed teeth terrifying in their sharpness. Though it crouched low to the ground, snow did not completely hide its curving claws.

Memory chilled Stone Walker. He had heard a hunter warn, "Beware of one so evil it is feared by the grizzly that towers over it."

Worse than being chilled, Stone Walker's next thought melted his icy bones. He would gladly retreat like the grizzly, leaving the wolverine to feast on his rabbit, if only his small brother were not too tired to flee. If only he, too, could move faster.

Even as he tried to plan, the wolverine's growls grew louder. "Little brother," Stone Walker said softly, hoping Leaping Deer could hear, "climb a tree near you. Climb high and hold well."

As he spoke, he grasped a fallen limb, broken by the weight of snow. Slowly, using the stick, he pushed the rabbit forward.

"Accept my gift, O hungry one," he whispered, "and grant safe passage for my brother and me." Perhaps the hunters' tales exaggerated the wolverine's vile nature.

With agonizing slowness, he put down the stick and straightened his legs for a step backward. When the snarling wolverine lunged, Stone Walker leaped upward instead.

Uncounted times of throwing and retrieving his weapon had strengthened his arms. His hands gripped the limb above his head. Then he switched one hand so he faced the tree. After bracing his snowshoes against its trunk, he pulled himself onto the limb, sending snow plunging to the ground.

Breathless, he looked for Leaping Deer. When his brother waved, Stone Walker's heart drummed a warning. Leaping Deer had chosen a mere sapling. Already its upper branches were bending under the young boy's weight.

Could a wolverine climb like a bear cub? No matter. The slightest shake of the tree would topple the animal's helpless prey.

Below Stone Walker, the wolverine stripped the tree of its bark in its effort to reach him. To keep from imagining such claws on tender skin, Stone Walker glanced away and saw his rope with its dangling weapon. There, where he had placed them rather than drop them into soft snow, almost within reach.

His relieved shout brought an answering yell from Leaping Deer. To Stone Walker's horror, the wolverine's snarls ceased. It stood alert, staring toward the nearby sound.

Stone Walker shouted again. "Be silent, little brother, else this evil one will find you."

Bending for his rope, Stone Walker thought desperately. To kill the animal, he must keep it here. Was there a way?

His fingers groped toward his snowshoes, and soon he had removed the one on his straight and useful foot. Rapping the snowshoe against the tree again and again, he teased the wolverine, and when it seemed mad with desire to tear him apart, he let his snowshoe fall.

Stone Walker had never hit a moving creature from such a perch, but he had to try. As he braced his back against the tree trunk and launched his strike, his other snowshoe slid on the icy branch, and his effort failed. The wolverine, however, was intent on shredding his snowshoe and didn't notice the dangling rope. Stone Walker snatched it up and steadied himself by pressing his twisted foot into a forked branch. It gripped and didn't slide. Braced in his perch, he aimed more carefully, not daring to think what could happen if the wolverine's sharp teeth sliced his rope, and he lost his weapon.

Stone Walker's arm shook as he lifted it high. He waited, willing himself to be patient until the right moment, willing his aim to be strong and true. "Strike swiftly, stone bird," he whispered.

As the evil one savaged the splintered snowshoe, Stone Walker hurled his missile. But the animal continued thrashing. Stone Walker feared he had failed again, so he dropped beside the wolverine and drew his knife. But there was no need. The animal lay still.

"Little brother," Stone Walker called, "where is the wood for our fire? Mighty hunters must be quick!" The smile on his lips stayed long after Leaping Deer hurried to obey. For as he worked, Leaping Deer sang praises of the mighty hunter from whom he would learn—the brother he would now call Stone Bird.

By Jeanne B. Hargett

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